Archive for Citizen Kane

Bogle’s Yearning

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , on October 4, 2017 by dcairns

If Laurel & Hardy in THE MUSIC BOX dramatise the sufferings of Sisyphus (that bloke condemned to roll a boulder uphill for eternity), W.C. Fields in IT’S A GIFT is comedy’s premier Tantalus, the chap tied up in the afterlife with food and drink perennially out of reach. Throughout this film, Fields strives to shave, eat, run a grocery store, sleep, win just one argument with his wife, control his son, stop his daughter crying, and start his car. It’s the comedy of frustration elevated to such an agonized pitch that the audience may feel inclined to gnaw its own limbs off to escape. Fortunately, it’s also very, very funny. I was sore afterwards from laughing.

A few stray observations.

Lots of Scottish references. Fields uses the name Charles Bogle to sign the story, and there are characters called Abernathy and Muckle. My theory is that Fields had a soft spot for Scotland, having first tasted whisky in Edinburgh while touring.

I first encountered this film when John Cleese showed the Mr. Muckle scene on a discussion show. This was probably soon after THE LIFE OF BRIAN so Cleese had become a kind of spokesman/counsel for the defence for edgy comedy. He said Fields had created the scene after a friend bet him he couldn’t make comedy about a blind person. “And he did something very clever: he made the blind man a THREAT.” So we’re not made serious by sympathy, and he don’t feel guilty for laughing at a disability.

My young self didn’t actually find the film clip funny at all. I wasn’t offended, but I was frustrated — Fields isn’t just an innocent victim in this, he’s a terribly incompetent grocer. So what I saw was a lot of painfully inevitable misfortune which made me itch to climb into the television and sort everyone out. Also, incredible as it seems now, Fields’ timing and delivery struck me as slack and shapeless. Of course, I was struggling to get to grips with his amazing naturalism, which incorporates hesitations, repetitions, sentences that fizzle out unfinished, and various other qualities of human speech rarely encountered in thirties comedy (never in the Marx Bros, for instance — and I loved the Marx Bros then as now). It would take me more than a three-minute clip to get in synch with Fields.

Fields’ young hellion of a son is played by Tom Bupp, brother of Sonny Bupp, who played Charles Foster Kane III, Orson Welles’ son in CITIZEN KANE. Thereby adding to the strange bond between Welles and Fields, who used the pseudonym Mahatma Kane Jeeves to sign THE BANK DICK.

About the only scene of family harmony is the picnic, where the Bissonettes wantonly destroy the grounds of a rich estate. Fiona, gasping for breath, wondered why Fields cramming crackers and a sandwich into his bulging face was SO funny. There doesn’t seem to be an answer.

Is this America’s first, mild gross-out joke?

The Simpsons suddenly seemed like a descendant of this. Homer is a more aggressive Harold Bissonette, Bart is a more charming Norman. Marge and Lisa are no Amelia and Mildred, but the sense of the central family as fundamentally blighted, which comes into play occasionally on Matt Groening’s show, feels connected to the glorious misanthropy here, particularly during the picnic, where Fields’ mild-mannered pop suddenly seems as much a force of destruction as his awful wife and offspring.

Nobody’s as apocalyptic in impact as Mr. Muckle the blind man, though, who sweeps through the grocery store like a hurricane (too soon?). He’s also profoundly deaf, of course, and this is merely more reason to fear him. Several things seem clear, and they all help Fields’ purpose in inspiring comedic rather than sympathetic reactions to Herr M.

  1. Muckle’s foul temper and rudeness have nothing to do with his handicap. He’s just an awful man who happens to be disabled. He seems only semi-aware that he’s disabled. His crotchetiness is more the result of age, but he was probably always kind of nasty.
  2. Bissonette’s terror on seeing Muckle’s approach tells us that these rampages are a regular, at least weekly occurrence. The grocery store plays Tokyo to Muckle’s Gojira (too soon?).
  3. Bissonette’s deeper terror when Mr. Muckle marches off into traffic shows his decency, and turns that into a pathetic comic trait also — a more normal response after what we’ve just seen might be to pray Muckle falls under the oncoming tyres and is extirpated at once.

A shame we never get to see Mr. Muckle chew his gum, and thus become unintelligible as well as sightless and unhearing, the full slapstick Helen Keller (too soon?).

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William K. Howard

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2017 by dcairns

One of the treats at Bologna was Dave Kehr’s retrospective of a sampling of the works of William K. Howard, a seriously neglected figure. On this evidence, perhaps a minor figure, but one who deserves to be remembered.

Howard made a good many silents, but the earliest title screened was ~

DON’T BET ON WOMEN

I liked this more than some people — it’s a creaky early talkie filmed play, starring Howard regular smoothie Edmund Lowe, tight-lipped mutterer Roland Young, smiley twinkly Jeanette MacDonald and croaking cracker Una Merkel. Some of the jokes are good, and it manages to triumph over its initial disagreeable sexism to end up with something like an empowering message. (The first people we meet are Lothario Lowe, who despises women, and bourgeoise Young, who patronises them — but when the women show up, things improve.)

Though the camera does move, it’s only to follow people about, and the most striking visual is the rogue appearance of a boom mic. U

It’s incredible that the same year, Lowe and Howard teamed up to make ~

TRANSATLANTIC

This one has a camera that swoops and sweeps around its vast ocean liner sets, craning around the engine rooms, transforming a sort of “GRAND HOTEL at sea meets The Saint” into something genuinely, excessively cinematic. We get to enjoy a young Myrna Loy, a heavily disguised Jean Hersholt, and a couple of obscure beauties — Lois Moran in the boring nice girl role and Greta Nissen as the much more exciting bad girl, dancing frenetically in a top hat. The film seems like a B-movie (perhaps a Saint one) made on a super-A budget, and the new restoration is gorgeous, all art deco white and sweep and dash.

THE TRIAL OF VIVIENNE WARE

Another B-type mystery plot, but with an even more interesting aesthetic. Firstly, Howard has thrown off all traces of the stodgy pacing of early sound and whips this thing along at a terrific pace. It anticipates Howard’s later Sturges-scripted THE POWER AND THE GLORY by using a series of flashbacks to tell its story, and anticipates nearly everything in its use of a dramatic score, a year before KING KONG. It’s based on a radio play, and so I guess you could argue that these innovations are really just radio techniques transposed, unthinkingly — but I don’t think so, and they would still count as historically important even if that were so.

Sturges liked to trumpet the “narratage” of TP&TG as his own invention, but this movie makes it feel as if Howard may have suggested it to him. Many of the flashbacks are literally “flashed” to by zip-pans, but in his zeal Howard also uses these to cross geographical space from scene to scene, or just to get from one side of the room to another. It’s a movie which could give you whiplash.

The music is maybe less effective and more annoying, but it’s a major step forward from the unscored early talkies — Howard uses it mainly to fill in during flashbacks, and you feel it may have been used that way in the radio version to distinguish different time zones. It behaves like a silent film score in these sequences — it’s just there all the time, until we zip back to present tense.

Fun perfs from Skeets Gallagher and Zasu Pitts as radio hosts commentating on the courtroom drama add to the overall sense of fast-paced entertainment delivered by one of those tennis-ball-launching machines.

SHERLOCK HOLMES

A complete farrago — as one friend said, if you introduce Holmes preparing for his upcoming nuptials while putting the finishing touches to a ray gun, while a “Canadian” boy assistant comments admiringly in an atrocious Cockney accent, you know what you’re in for. The film sports a fine Watson in Reginald Owen, who anticipates Nigel Bruce’s interp (“By Jove, Holmes, it’s a positive ambuscade!”) and a transcendent Moriarty in Ernest Torrence (also visible at Bolognia in STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.) The stagey talking scenes are one thing, but Howard shows his creativity BETWEEN scenes, as with a dazzling montage introducing a funfair straight out of Lynchland.

Also: Clive Brook in drag.

THE POWER AND THE GLORY

Maybe Howard’s best-known movie, but one spoken of in terms of Preston Sturges’ script and its structural anticipation of CITIZEN KANE rather than the skilled direction. Ralph Morgan, a Howard regular, narrates flashbacks exploring the life of railroad baron Spencer Tracy, who has just committed suicide. The Rosebud here is the motive, and the theme is the dog-eared “What shall it profit a man etc?” Morgan’s reminiscences anticipate the KANE flashbacks by including numerous scenes he didn’t witness, and follow two separate timelines, one dedicated to the hero’s business success (Sturges appears to find him admirable, even when his strike-breaking causes hundreds of deaths), the other to his disastrous personal life.

Stand-out performance is from Colleen Moore, whose last scene is absolutely devastating. Elsewhere in the fest we got to see one of her earliest roles, or part of it, in the incomplete Rupert Julian race-melo, THE SAVAGE, so watching her play a character who ages thirty or so years here, in one of her last roles, seemed apt.

Only appearance from a member of the future Sturges stock company? Robert Warwick, at the time a popular supporting player at Universal.

According to Kehr, there are quite a few more Howards of interest, and the man’s biography also seems fascinating. He was producer on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town until a week before it opened, at which point an argument with the author led to him taking his name off the show — a self-destructive move of unique proportions, but one which seems to find its echo elsewhere in his career, which may be partly why he hasn’t been better known.

Some kind of a puppet

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , on December 3, 2016 by dcairns

life backwards from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I’ve been looking for this sketch since forever. Easily, for me, the most memorable thing the satirical puppet show Spitting Image ever did.

The modus operandi of the show was snark, but this posthumous piece on Orson Welles can be processed in other ways. At the time, I remember finding it not so much funny as thought-provoking.

The year was 1986. Welles died in October the previous year. It was kind of odd for a topical show to pick up on something not really in the news. “Don’t you think right after his death -?” as a guy named Thompson once attempted to ask. This little scene riffs on some of the commonplace bits of snark about Welles — “from CITIZEN KANE to sherry commercials” but offers a different spin.

American satires of Welles come with a not-so-hidden subtext: he started big and ended small. He made the greatest film ever, and look what happened to him. Beware, all of you, of artistic ambition. Hubris! No good can come of it. Very reassuring to those with regular work making run-of-the-mill multiplex fodder.

The authors of this piece are still prone to underrating later Welles achievements, as far as we can tell in its rather incomplete summary of his career. But by flipping Welles’ biography around, this little spoof raises two points ~

  1. Does it matter what order Welles made things in? The fact is, he made CITIZEN KANE. A career with that in it is a triumphant career. Nothing that comes after it can invalidate it, any more than anything before it could invalidate it.
  2. What does it matter what you say about people?